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French director Arnaud Desplechin makes his English-language film debut with Esther Kahn, a moving study of a 19th-century woman's life in the theatre. It's been a few years since Desplechin's last film, the quirky, interesting My Sex Life...Or How I Got Into An Argument, but this is an even better character study.
Based on a short story by Arthur Symons, but also very loosely on Franτois Truffaut's The Wild Child, the screenplay by Desplechin and Michael Sloan takes place in the slums of London's East End, where the young Esther grows up as the daughter of a Jewish tailor, Ythzok (Laszlo Szabo). However, unlike her more obedient sisters (Berna Raif, Claudia Solti), the sad-faced, introverted girl rebels at toiling for her family, so when Esther is older (played by Summer Phoenix), her mother, Rivka (Frances Barber), sends her to work in a factory.
Eventually, Esther finds her true calling--the stage. Night after night, she visits the local theatre to see the latest productions, and, in time, she tries out for a small part herself. Surprisingly, the retiring young woman succeeds at acting, and she gains confidence, a new maturity, and a group of friends (including Ian Holm as a colleague), in the process. When a French playwright, Philip (Fabrice Desplechin), takes an interest in her, Esther's life changes even more dramatically. Esther moves out of her parents' home and in with Philip, and with Philip's guidance, she secures the coveted role of Hedda Gabler in an upcoming production.
But on the eve of the opening, Esther experiences heartbreak as Philip leaves her for another woman (Emmanuelle Devos). Esther is so distraught, her co-stars worry that she might go mad or commit suicide during her performance. It isn't until the end of the play that her friends know what will become of Esther Kahn.
Comfortably poised between the expressionism of George Sidney's Jeanne Eagels and the impressionism of John Cassavetes's Opening Night, Esther Kahn crossbreeds the old-fashioned Hollywood biopic with the modern-day 'indie' art film. Desplechin observes the minute details of Esther's development with great delicacy, yet leaves some aspects of the heroine's inner life--and outward motivations--an intriguing mystery. Fortunately, this approach lends complexity and suspense to an otherwise straightforward Cinderella tale (note especially Esther's haunting dream early on and her performance as Hedda Gabler at the climax).
Feminists may argue about the choice of a male voice-over to narrate Esther's story and the fact that a mere cad is the reason for Esther's near-downfall, yet Desplechin's sensitive handling, Summer Phoenix's luminous turn, and the meticulous production values make Esther Kahn into a film worthy of comparison to Truffaut's best cinematic poems.
--Eric Monder, "International Film Journal"
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